I have been privileged to study under some of the greatest minds in their academic fields. In this series of tributes to them, I commend their work and celebrate their lives.
Lamin Sanneh was born into a Muslim family in The Gambia. He earned his PhD in Islamic history at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. In his career, he taught the history of Islam at Aberdeen, Harvard and Yale. I was introduced to Sanneh by another historian at Princeton, the late Professor Andrew Walls, under whom I learned a great deal about the spread of Christianity to China around the same time the faith reached England. After his class on the history of Persian missions in Tang Dynasty China, Walls mentioned his friend Lamin Sanneh and said, “Look him up and learn about Christianity in Africa from him.” A year later, at the ripe old age of 40, I was in Sanneh’s class on Islamic history in Africa, in pursuit of a master’s degree in the history of religion.
In his highly stimulating courses, I learned about the Fulani Empire of West Africa, the Islamic Brotherhood of Egypt and the rise of medieval Islamic Jihad during the Third Crusade when Saladin encounter Richard the Lion Heart in Palestine. Sanneh was my strongest influence to visit Africa to learn first-hand, boots on the ground, the many magnificent cultures of Africa. Not the great safaris of Eastern and Southern Africa, but the more intensely spiritual cultures of Western and Northern Africa where Islam replaced Christianity almost entirely. I explored Islamic Africa from Morocco to Egypt, and from the Sudan to Benin.
His 1989 book, Translating the Message was a seminal work that challenged the history of Christian missions. In it, Sanneh argued that, “The translation role of missionaries cast them as unwitting allies of mother-tongue speakers and as reluctant opponents of colonial domination.” This was during a time when popular opinion criticized western missionaries as Christian do-gooders who blindly followed imperialism and colonialism.
Lamin developed a curiosity and a lifelong interest in matters of the intellect at an early age. “I grew up reading the classics of Islam, with religious and historical accounts steeped in the vindication of the things of God. As a child I remember stumbling on Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life, which had a profound influence on me. It made me resolved to pursue the world of learning and scholarship. I became a voracious reader,” he told Christianity Today in an October 2003 interview. “Later on at school I read the works of the Western masters, such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Keats, Longfellow, Flaubert, Goethe, and so on. All that unlocked the teeming world of the imagination to me, just as Helen Keller intimated.”
Sanneh pointed out that unlike many other religions, Christianity welcomes the translation of its sacred books into local languages so that as many people as possible can read the Bible for themselves. He stated that even the so-called original languages of Hebrew and Greek were in fact translations of God’s revelation into ordinary human languages. God does not speak Hebrew and Greek. Sanneh wanted Africans to realize that Christian missionaries labored to preserve and teach many African languages in the halls of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale. His own alma mater, London University’s legendary School of Oriental and African Studies, which ranks among the great institutions of learning, became the home of many missionary-scholars.
Sanneh traveled the world and observed the massive changes happening before his eyes as an African in America, but he was very much a complex product of British colonialism. And, speaking of British colonialism, we had much in common. Like Sanneh, I grew up in the British Empire, so the English language and all things British came into my life early on. Like him, I attended a Catholic mission school, La Salle Petaling Jaya. Like him, I faced the complex issues of Islam and Christianity firsthand, growing up in a Methodist family in Muslim-majority Malaysia. We both had the incredible privilege of tertiary education in Great Britain, the land of our colonial masters. We both ended up in London where we had our faith and intellect vigorously tested and strengthened. We both became academics, he at an Ivory Tower of great repute and me as a wandering independent investigator of interdisciplinary field research. I mention all these not to suggest that I am his peer, but only to say that our shared personal and spiritual histories brought me to appreciate the mind, manner and measure of a gentleman scholar from the colonies. Finally, we both became grateful immigrants to America. For him, what makes America great is not what it takes from the world but what it gives away to others. I cannot agree more.
Always the gentle soul, Lamin taught me the importance of a historian’s duty to suspend final judgment to investigate the past with moral courage and spiritual integrity. He welcomed my probing questions on some of his theses. In class, we traded gentle barbs of disagreement, he as an eminent classroom teacher of note and me as an anonymous independent field explorer eager to learn from the master. The many times that we tangled after class over the essence of Christianity prompted me to rethink all I thought I knew about Islam and Africa.
His 2012 autobiography, Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African, told of a life that started in The Gambia, West Africa, and of study in England. Sanneh has made the transition from Islam to Christianity: summoned to a religion in a society largely dictated by Islamic thought. Sanneh spent the rest of his life exploring how why Christianity and Islam often clash in dialogue, coming from two paradigms that often speak past each other.
In his 2016 book, Beyond Jihad — The Pacifist Tradition in West African Islam, Lamin wrote of the nonviolent moderate form of Islam led by Islamic scholars who rejected the cruelty of the Caliphate system. In the book, he argues that Islam was successful in West Africa not because of military might, but because it was adapted by Africans themselves. I had no idea that such pacifist Muslims thrived during the age of caliphates. His cutting-edge research reshaped what the West thought of the Islamic world
Yet, we did not agree on everything. I was interested in how geohistorical contingencies shaped the propensities of one’s faith of choice precisely because in most cases, there were no choices. Thus, where and when one was born makes a difference in what one believes about God. This remains true today. Children born into families of deep faith rarely have the opportunity to explore, assess and decide which God to believe. I felt that Lamin did not adequately address this issue and I told him so. We agreed to disagree. On another point of disagreement, he felt that following my PhD, I should join the ranks of the company of scholars as he did, to optimize the institutional facilities open to faculty members. But I argued for complete academic freedom to investigate on an interdisciplinary level with no political obstruction from institutions, no matter how prestigious. We agreed to disagree.
Of the many things I learned from my teacher, perhaps the most important was the at of disagreement with grace.
The nature of academic research on a subject as personal as religion is fraught with danger and the hazards multiply with the confluence of opposing faiths. Faith is fueled by confessions (a matter of the mind), supported by convictions (a matter of the heart), and kept steady by commitments (a matter of the will) to beliefs. Investigating the human commitment to convictional confessions, or CCC, is to delve deeply into a person’s will, emotion and mind. To study religion is to embark on a dangerous journey. When one researches the history of science, art, music, or literature the result is often universally verifiable; but when one research religion and matters of faith, almost nothing that matters can be easily verified. Belief cuts to the very core of human beings being human.
Lamin’s adopted faith included a doctrine of belief that determines an eternal torment for those outside the faith. And, like many of us who did not grow up in the Christian West, his loved ones who have passed on would be deemed to have entered eternal torment in Hell. How might someone in his situation deal with such a delicate subject?
During the last years of his life, we kept in touch mostly by email as I traveled extensively to many African countries in my quest to understand that amazing continent of many spiritual cultures. As a Christian, Lamin retained a deep love for Muslims, a respect for Islamic cultures and an awareness of the complex relationship between the two Abrahamic faiths. I adopted his love of Islamic history and respect for a religion not my own.
His sudden death on January 6, 2019, from a stroke came as a terrible shock to me. I was on my way to yet another African country, Ethiopia. I grieve this loss deeply because he died relatively young, at age 76 and had so much more to give the world. The best way to honor his memory is to continue to think things through, to learn, to write and if necessary, to disagree with grace.